Redistricting proposal links Kodiak with Bethel, Cordova

Wes Hanna
Kodiak Daily Mirror
June 1, 2011

Meet the new neighbors, Kodiak. Recent Alaska redistricting changes propose placing the island in a House district with Cordova and in a Senate district with Bethel.

At the public meeting of the Alaska Redistricting Board in Kodiak at the end of April, board chair John Torgerson told Kodiak residents the draft redistricting plans took into account Alaska Native-influence voting districts that were drawn to encompass 35 percent of the Native voting-age population.

One of the requirements of the redistricting board was to avoid retrogression, or drawing boundaries that give Alaska Natives less of a voice in state elections than they had when political boundaries were drawn after the 2000 census. Alaska is one of nine states needing U.S. Department of Justice clearance of the new redistricting boundaries.

That 35 percent or greater Native influence number came from a benchmark set by a voting rights expert for the last redistricting board a decade ago.

“It could go up — we don’t know,” Torgerson said at the time. “It could be 40 percent, and if it is, we’re really going to be scratching our heads.”

But after analyzing scores of Alaska elections, the voting rights expert this year concluded the Alaska Native-influence districts would need at least 42 percent of the population to be Native and of voting age.

The redistricting board had to start over completely, board member Bob Brodie, a Kodiak resident, said Tuesday.

“A couple of people who were working specifically on the rural (districts) were stuck for two weeks trying to figure out combinations of how to build these districts and make them effective,” Brodie said.

One result of the recent changes is that Kodiak’s House district is seriously being considered as part of an effective Native Senate district. This would be accomplished by pairing Kodiak with a district that includes Bethel for an approximately 50 percent Native voting-age population across the two districts.

The Alaska Redistricting Board meeting in Anchorage Tuesday discussed whether to pair Kodiak with Bethel or Dillingham for a Senate seat.

According to information provided to the board by voting rights expert Lisa Handley, pairing Kodiak with Dillingham for a Senate seat would average just 30 percent Alaska Native voters, falling short of the 42 percent benchmark.

The Department of Justice would likely object to pairing Kodiak and Dillingham, in Handley’s estimation.

Even so, the Alaska Redistricting Board will hold a closed executive session on the possible legal ramifications of the different Senate seat parings today.

Brodie said pairing Kodiak with Bethel may not meet the criteria for a challenge in court because the Voting Rights Act trumps state law.

“The state constitution says (Senate districts) should be compact and contiguous and socioeconomically integrated,” Brodie said. “There’s no way we have any socioeconomic connection to Bethel. They’re a subsistence lifestyle up there and we’re a vibrant commercial fishing area.”

While the date for public comments has passed, the Alaska Redistricting Board is still accepting letters. Email addresses and the board’s mailing address can be found on the board’s website, www.akredistricting.org.

“If they are going to do something, they need to make their opinion known in the next few days,” Brodie said. “I don’t know what weight it’s going to carry, given the overriding numbers of the Voter’s Rights Act.”

In another change, Cordova in now included with Kodiak for a House district. Earlier draft redistricting plans placed Kodiak in a House district with Seward.

But at a hearing in Cordova, members of the public said consistently they don’t want to be in a district with Valdez, where they don’t share a commercial fishing history. The redistricting board decided to accommodate them and place Cordova with Kodiak.

The Native community in the Chenega and Tatitlek area near Cordova also has a common bond with Kodiak, Brodie said. The proposed district thus stretches along the Gulf of Alaska for about 300 miles, but without Seward.